Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Calm, Detached, Confident, Resigned, Nonjudgmental, Observational (You Get the Point)
In Good Hands
You know how no matter how crazy-sounding the events in this book get, we readers are never really carried along on the insanity train? That's largely due to García Márquez's tone. We feel like we are in safe, confident hands, like tourists being led through the special effects of a war movie. Sure, there are fireballs flying all around, but our guide knows how the contraptions are rigged and he projects his own confidence onto us.
We are never in danger of getting carried away by the grand passions and outsized emotions and obsessions of the characters. It makes for a singular reading experience – maybe a little like watching one of those old Jerry Springer TV shows, where nutcases are throwing chairs at each other, but we sit back and identify with the relaxed voice of the unconcerned host.
Tone Meets Style
But is this kind of detachment a good thing? Let's take a case in point, the section near the beginning of the novel where José Arcadio (II) runs off with the gypsy caravan after Pilar Ternera tells him she's pregnant with his baby:
José Arcadio and the gypsy girl did not witness the decapitation. They went to her tent, where they kissed each other with a desperate anxiety while they took off their clothes. The gypsy girl […] was a languid little frog, with incipient breasts and legs so thin that they did not even match the size of José Arcadio's arms, but she had a decision and a warmth that compensated for her fragility. Nevertheless, José Arcadio could not respond to her because they were in a kind of public tent where the gypsies passed through with their circus things and did their business, and would even tarry by the bed for a game of dice. [… ] A gypsy woman with splendid flesh came in a short time after accompanied by a man… [she] looked at José Arcadio and examined his magnificent animal in repose with a kind of pathetic fervor.
"My boy," she exclaimed, "may God preserve you just as are."
José Arcadio's companion asked them to leave them alone. And the couple lay down on the ground, close to the bed. The passion of the others woke up José Arcadio's fervor. On the first contact the bones of the girl seemed to become disjointed with a disorderly crunch like the sound of a box of dominoes, and her skin broke out into a pale sweat and her eyes filled with tears as her whole body exhaled a lugubrious lament and a vague smell of mud. But she bore the impact with a firmness of character and a bravery that were admirable. José Arcadio felt himself lifted up into the air toward a state of seraphic inspiration […] It was Thursday. On Saturday night, José Arcadio wrapped a red cloth around his head and left with the gypsies. (2.35-37)
So what's happening here? We seem to get a very detailed, almost journalistic approach to describing events. Check out (1) how the language of zoological observation comes in (the girl is a "languid frog" and José Arcadio's penis is a "magnificent animal in repose"); (2) some of the clinical or medical-sounding appraisals (her legs are thinner than his arms, José Arcadio's biological response to the stimulus of hearing other people have sex), and (3) the way the scene is set with a kind of quick anthropological sketch (gypsies live in communal tents, where sleeping, gambling, and sex take place side by side).
These are all techniques to convey description in as neutral a way as possible. Notice, for example, how the tent itself is never described – maybe because any adjectives would give us a sense of poverty or squalor, which would convey judgment. It's less like we're in the tent with these people and more like we're watching them in a nature documentary.
How Do We React?
So how are we to make sense of the ethics and morality of the situation? After all, what is being described is as follows: underage (potentially prepubescent) sex, public sex, and the decision of a teenager to run away from home. Are we meant to approve of this? Disapprove? Are we supposed to think all this is normal? Or that it somehow brands José Arcadio as a deviant?
We don't really get any indication of how we, the observers, are supposed to feel about this scene. The only feelings we get are from the point of view of José Arcadio: he is the one who finds the girl "admirable" even though she is so tiny and smells the sad (lugubrious) "mud-like" scent that comes from her.
So what do you think about this kind of detached narrator? Is he avoiding an unpleasant duty or trying to get readers to use their own ethics muscles for a change? Is this neutrality a positive, a negative, or both?